American Optimism

The recent mining disaster in Pennsylvania has highlighted for me a difference between European and American culture.

You remember the situation. Nine miners were trapped in a narrow passage that was flooding with freezing water. The first problem was locating their whereabouts – an almost impossible task in itself. Then there was the problem of drilling through hundreds of feet of rock.

On the first day, tapping was heard on a probe, but after a short time there were no more signs of life. Then the drill head broke in the first rescue shaft and they had to start all over again. Scientists and engineers were predicting high pressure explosions, poison gas leaks and goodness knows what. The rescuers kept drilling.

What came across on the news was a sense of urgency and single-mindedness predicated on a belief in eventual success. Without retreating into illusions, there was yet a remarkable degree of optimism. As a CNN special report tracked it:

“Late last night in this corner of rugged southwest Pennsylvania, it was easier to hope for a miracle; today, with the rain and the broken drill bit, it’s more difficult. To avoid thinking about dead miners, people are talking about air pockets and the mysterious contours of an underground mine. They’re engineering hope, figuring out a way that this story could still have a happy ending.”

and later:

“Trapped in a cramped, flooded chamber deep below the Pennsylvania countryside, nine miners fought to survive. Above, a community rallied to their aid, despite a mountain of obstacles. On the surface and below ground, three days of grit led to a miracle at Quecreek mine.”

Watching the drama unfold on television I was reminded of another disaster two years earlier, which had a very different outcome. During the Kursk submarine tragedy I had a quite different intuition about the attitude of the rescuers. From the beginning, when concerns for military secrecy seemed to take precedence over concern for the trapped submariners, through the refusal of Putin to break off his summer holiday to the belated request for help and the inevitable tragic outcome, there was a sense that everyone was just going through the motions. What is the point of hope when you know there is no hope? And who is to say that this was not a realistic response?

These instances seem to indicate a contrast between American optimism and European pessimism, and, more interestingly perhaps, a different cultural attitude to ‘fate’. It is not always clear what is better in a crisis. One does not imagine that the defenders of Stalingrad and Leningrad were optimistic of eventual victory. Rather one suspects a fatalistic acceptance that led to a dogged determination to endure – “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Shakespeare puts it. In similar circumstances American optimism may have crumbled and left nothing in its place.

You don’t have to look far to find historical reasons for this psycho-cultural difference. European life has been an endless succession of traumas for thousands of years. Plague, famine and war have swept the continent with frightening regularity. Dominated by deadly forces beyond his control, the common man existed in a perpetual state of uncertainty. At any moment plans for the future could be dashed against the rocks of history, or tossed aside by the implacable forces of nature.

In his quirky little paper ‘Dreams in Folklore’, jointly written with the folklorist Ernst Oppenheim and full of coarse humour and scatalogical reference, Freud puts forward the suggestion that marriage, in the stories discussed, may be symbolised by a lottery. You never know who you will end up with and what life will result. The idea that ‘life is a lottery’ is a subliminal metaphor that lies deep in the European mind and forms a kind of template for an outlook on the world. Given the collective history we can see the reason why.

The idea that ‘life is a race’ (perhaps ‘Pursuit’ would be a better word) may occupy an equivalent place in the American psyche, subtely transforming the metaphor of life as a ‘journey’ towards the more serious and also more inconsequential idea of life as a ‘game’.

There is little doubt that Freud was one of the pessimistic Europeans. But he was not above employing an American example to make his point.

“The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence; by asking this question one is merely admitting to a store of unsatisfied libido to which something else must have happened, a kind of fermentation leading to sadness and depression. I am afraid these explanations of mine are not very wonderful. Perhaps because I am too pessimistic. I have an advertisement floating about in my head which I consider the boldest and most successful piece of American publicity:

‘Why live, if you can be buried for ten dollars?'”

Letter to Marie Bonaparte Aug 13 1937

Perhaps the Pennsylvanian miners who were buried for free were pleased to know they had their colleagues to dig them out and not someone like Freud. Let’s wish them further good luck in the future.

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